Imagine yourself at work, midway through working on a project when your leader comes up and asks you to prepare an important presentation for a board meeting coming up. You already have a heavy workload, your to-do list is brimming with urgent tasks and you are starting to feel the pressure. In situations like this, it can be difficult to comprehend the difference between what’s urgent and important, how to best manage your time and where to devote your energy.
Amidst the myriad of time management concepts that exist, the Eisenhower Decision Matrix is a simple productivity tool that takes the principles of urgent vs. important tasks and helps you order and classify your activities, encouraging you to pause and reflect on where you are spending the majority of your time and how you can get the most value out of your time.
In this post we will uncover the underlying principles of the matrix and highlight why it is important for all business leaders and teams to use this tool to claim back time and prioritise the important things in business and life.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
“What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”
Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle
The ‘Eisenhower Matrix’, also known as the ‘Urgent-Important Matrix’ is a productivity tool formulated to boost your effectiveness and project management, utilising a quadrant grid that classifies your daily tasks visually according to two parameters: their level of importance and urgency. Eisenhower recognised the importance of great time management, to be effective as well as efficient, and designed the matrix to determine the urgency of one’s tasks.
As you can see in the image below, the matrix is separated into four quadrants:
1. Urgent and important
2. Not urgent but important
3. Urgent but not important
4. Not urgent and not important
If you have ever found yourself writing lots of to-do lists or potentially lurching from one crisis to another and come to realise that you haven’t achieved an enormous amount, chances are you haven’t considered the difference between urgent and important tasks. To use this tool, we need to understand the distinction between these two terms.
What are ‘Urgent’ and ‘Important’ Activities?
Important activities are tasks that contribute to our long-term mission, values or goals. They typically require planning, organisation and initiative and require you to act in a productive and proactive state of mind.
Urgent activities, on the other hand, are tasks that demand our immediate attention, usually associated with achieving another ’s goals. Putting us into a reactive mode, these are often tasks that we devote time and concentration on as they demand attention due to the consequences that can come about.
By fully grasping these two terms, we are able to overcome our natural tendency to focus on unimportant, urgent activities, so that we can dedicate efforts to what’s essential for success. Let’s now have a deeper look into the grid and break down each individual quadrant.
Quadrant 1: Important and Urgent
Tasks that fall under this quadrant are home to urgent deadlines, pressing problems and emergencies. These require our immediate attention and work towards fulfilling a long-term goal. Here we see our most reactive version of ourselves, juggling to manage unplanned demands and long-term commitments. Unfortunately, all tasks can never be eliminated from this quadrant, however you should aim to seek ways to minimise the amount of time spent here in order to become your most effective self.
Tasks in this quadrant have two distinctive types: ones that you could not have foreseen and others that you have left to the last minute. Planning should be your priority to eliminate last minute activities, however for the unplanned deadlines, try and acknowledge the task and respond with a commitment to complete it later. This can help you resume with your planned tasks and manage the expectations of others.
Quadrant 1 tasks are inevitable. But the more you take steps to actively plan ahead to complete projects and decrease the number of pressing activities that pop up, the more you avoid outcomes that keep you in quadrant 1—and the more it frees you to spend time living in your ideal state: quadrant 2.
Quadrant 2: Not Urgent but Important
Also known as the big picture quadrant, quadrant 2 tasks are the activities that don’t have a high-priority deadline but nevertheless help you accomplish your objectives, because time spent here is time spent on your personal and professional growth as well as other opportunities. The activities here are focused on your most meaningful and therefore most important work.
This is the quadrant of planned thought, knowing what’s ahead and making time to work in a timely fashion. Attempt to maximise your time spent here, set specific time aside for strategic planning and strengthen relationships with others who can contribute to the success of your projects. Doing this will help you to produce high quality work in an efficient manner.
Quadrant 3: Urgent but Not Important
The intersection of urgent but not important, is referred to as quadrant 3 in the matrix. Tasks in this zone tend to interrupt us or drag us away from our important tasks. Think of it as the notification on your phone that pops up. These activities may be interesting or fun, yet are distractions that lead us to not finishing projects on time and can leave us feeling stressed. They take time away from us that should be spent on quadrant two, requiring our urgent attention. Tasks here typically involve helping others meet their own goals and although important to them, may not be important to you.
In these situations, it is highly recommended that you re-evaluate how much time you spend being reactive, to either notifications or people who request assistance. We tend to spend too much time in quadrant three as we gain that satisfaction from helping others, and while we’re not advocating you to stop helping others, we encourage you to pause and be mindful of the impact of helping vs. your ability to achieve the organisational goals that you have already committed to. A great skill to learn is the confidence to say no, delegate to others, becoming more assertive and not overcommitting to projects you won’t be able to achieve to a high standard.
Quadrant 4: Not Urgent and Not Important
Referred to as the distraction quadrant, quadrant 4 activities aren’t pressing nor help with the achievement of your own personal goals. This is the quadrant of trivial activities, such as mindless scrolling through social media, that can eat up your time if you are not careful. These distractions, however, can leave us feeling energised in measured doses, so you shouldn’t try and eliminate these altogether but instead be intentional about how much time you spend here and whether that time could be spent in quadrant two instead.
Building this awareness is an easy activity, as by monitoring how much time you spend on such activities, you are able to identify where you could have invested this time more effectively somewhere else. A challenge for you: for one week, monitor how much time you spend on social media and consider where you could have reclaimed that time to boost other areas.
For those of you that want to increase your productivity and efficiency, not only do you need to understand the overall concept of the matrix, you need to know where you currently are sitting within it. This can ultimately help you decide what changes need to take place in order for you to prioritise and work effectively.
The ability to distinguish between what’s urgent and important is an essential skill to have. By understanding the matrix, it allows you to deal with the truly important, plan well, execute those plans and work towards your goals.
We challenge you to download the model we’ve provided and spend five minutes classifying where you’ve spent the majority of your time over the past week. If you’re finding a lot of activities in quadrants 1, 3 or 4, start to consider what is stopping you from operating in quadrant 2. Small changes can make an enormous difference to your effectiveness.
Are there small changes that you can make that will turn around and transform your leadership? We’d love to hear about changes that you’ve made, things that have worked, maybe even things that you’ve tried that haven’t worked. Feel free to share those comments with us in the comment section below.
In our video below, Culture and Leadership Partner Louise Connor breaks down the segments of the matrix, discusses the essence of the tool and how to consciously give priority to important tasks.
Take five minutes to watch and feel free to share this with colleagues or anyone you know who might get value from this.